Sunday, August 21, 2011

At The Gates

(Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 21 August, 2011 at Blessed Sacrament Church in Providence, R.I.; See Matthew 16:13-20)

There are many treasures and gifts that we share as Catholics in the world today. Whether or not we were baptized into the Church as infants or have been received into the Church as adults there are so many truths of our Catholic faith that are simply priceless. One of our greatest treasures, in fact, is “on display” right now in Spain in the City of Madrid. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, is a true gift to the Church and to the world.

This very weekend there are 1.5 million young people from all over the world that have travelled great distances to be with Pope Benedict XVI. It is said sometimes that young people are no longer interested in coming to the Church. Tell that to Pope Benedict XVI! Tell that to the 1.5 million people gathered in prayer in Madrid. The Pope truly is a treasure for us as Catholics and a gift to the world we live in.

The Eucharist is another priceless gift we thank God for as Catholics. We gather together each week to receive Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity. The Eucharist is the greatest treasure we could ever possess or, rather, the great Treasure that possesses us, takes hold of us and transforms our lives in ways beyond our ability to fathom.

Nonetheless, and not infrequently, we are called upon to defend these gifts we have been given. Perhaps too often people misunderstand—sometimes even intentionally so—the words and actions of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI. Perhaps you yourself have had to explain to someone, “No, that is not at all what the Pope said,” or “No, that is not at all what the Pope meant.”

It can also happen that people in our lives will question and challenge the very things that we hold as sacred. Even relatives and friends at times will take issue with those truths of our faith that we value most of all: the personal dignity of every human life from conception until natural death, the sanctity of marriage as a covenant of love between one man and one woman, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Defending our faith can seem, at times, to be a daunting task. Many Catholics may feel like they just do not know as much as they would like to when it comes to responding to these questions and challenges that come sometimes from all directions.

Thankfully Christ has given us such tremendous promises and the blessed assurance that we will never be alone. He says to us at the conclusion of St. Matthew’s Gospel:

Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.

—Matthew 28:20

One of the greatest promises Christ makes to His Church that relates directly to St. Peter and his successor Pope Benedict XVI, as well as to the power of God in the midst of the Church, is the one we hear in the Gospel this weekend. Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. Jesus immediately recognizes Peter’s insight as a gift:

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.

—Matthew 16:17

This is no ordinary event nor is St. Peter simply more intuitive than the other disciples. He has received the revelation of God and responded to it. Christ continues:

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

—Matthew 16:18

This rock-solid promise of the presence, power and permanence of Christ and the primacy of Peter is a tremendous gift and treasure for us as Catholics. Down through the centuries the Church has always held onto these words of our Lord as a reminder of the hope we have in Him. No matter how dark things get or how difficult the battle with evil becomes, the Church will still stand firm. We will continue to proclaim Jesus Christ and His Gospel message until the end of time.

Yet that hope to which we cling, however real it may be, is not precisely what Christ is saying in this passage. Certainly Christ will sustain us through all the trials and tribulations we face. Nonetheless, our Lord’s words to us are not merely defensive; they imply much more than that. It is not simply the case that the Church will be protected by Christ and sustained in the assault of the powers of evil and darkness. No, what Christ is saying is that the gates of the netherworld will not be able to sustain the assault of His Church! He says that “On this rock I will build my church,” and, taking the literal Greek:

πύλαι ἅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.

The fortified city gates of the netherworld (the powers of death and evil) will not be able to triumph in an encounter with it.

Far from remaining on the defensive, the Church is called upon to go forward in the power of the risen Christ and do no less than lay siege to the gates of the netherworld!

I would suggest this weekend that there are three ways we are called to do that as Christians; three ways of living out our Catholic faith in such as way that we stage an offensive against the powers of darkness and the powers of evil in this world.

The first and perhaps least considered is prayer. There is unthinkable power in that daily converse we have with our God in prayer. Are there people in your life that are isolated from God and from the Church? Are there people that you know and love that feel all alone in this world and live a life separated from God and perhaps have lost their faith?

Hell is eternal separation from God. Many people find themselves in a living hell and long for the communion of life and love that you and I take for granted every day. Pray for them! When we pray for those around us it is not a merely passive plea. We are breaking into the realm of darkness and taking hold of souls created by God; we are lifting them up to God, bringing them into His light, and pleading for their salvation. There is nothing passive about that! It is an all-out, full frontal attack on the gates of the netherworld. And it works. God listens to our prayers.

The second way that we are called to lay siege to the gates of the netherworld is through a full sacramental life in the Church. When a new child of God is brought into the life of the Church, the priest prays in the Rite of Baptism:

The Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Savior by the sign of his cross.

The Sacraments, initiated by Christ and embraced in the life of the faithful, have the power to draw souls from the netherworld into the Kingdom of God.

The same is true for each one of us, already baptized. When we are struggling with sin and even if we have become lost through choices which have separated us from the life of grace and the life of God, we can be brought back into sanctifying grace once more through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. With reconciliation and the power of Sacramental Absolution, the words of the priest announcing the forgiveness of Christ—“I absolve you from your sins…”—have the power to reclaim souls once again for the Kingdom of God.

Finally, and perhaps most challenging for some, the work of evangelization is a powerful offensive weapon against the powers of darkness that oppose us. To simply share our faith and the love we have received from God with those around us who perhaps do not believe in Him can change lives and transform the world we live in. The proclamation of the Gospel message transformed the world in the days following the resurrection of Christ. It transforms the world still.

How is God challenging us to live out our faith this week like never before? With faith and trust in God we ask for the grace to pray for those we love and who are perhaps isolated or separated from God and His Church; to live a full sacramental life in the Church, especially united to Christ in the weekly celebration of the Eucharist; and to proclaim and share our faith in confidence with those around us. When we do so we carry with us the promise of Christ Himself, that not even the gates of the netherworld will be able to stand against us.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Christ in the Midst of the Storm

Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee"

(Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 6-7 August, 2011 at Ss. John and James Church in West Warwick, R.I.; See 1 Kings 19:9-13 and Matthew 14:22-33)

Have you ever felt completely overwhelmed by the difficulties and complexities of life? I am sure that we have all felt that way at one time or another. Have you ever asked yourself: Where is God in all of this? I cannot see God at work in my life…I cannot find God in the midst of all the difficulties I am facing.

That may have been what the Prophet Elijah was thinking in our first reading this morning. That reading from the First Book of Kings describes how:

At the mountain of God, Horeb, Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
—1 Kings 19:9

He was not taking shelter in the cave because it was raining (in fact, it had not rained in a long, long time because Elijah himself had prophesied against it!). Neither was Elijah taking shelter in the cave because he was cold. He was taking shelter in the cave because there was a price on his head and he was literally running for his life.

In the chapters that precede 1 Kings 19 we discover the dramatic events which brought Elijah to that cave on the mountain of God. King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel, had turned away from the worship of the one, true God, Yahweh. In fact, 450 prophets of the false god Baal had seduced the people and their leaders into idolatry. Elijah defended the honor and holiness of God and stood alone against these false prophets; he publically humiliated them on Mount Carmel and then disposed of them, much to the chagrin of King Ahab and Jezebel (see 1 Kings 18:17-40).

The response of the Queen? To have the Prophet Elijah put to death. As a result Elijah rose quickly and fled from the land, ultimately seeking shelter in that small cave on Mount Horeb. He may very well have been thinking: Where is God in all of this? I cannot see God at work in my life…I cannot find God in the midst of all these difficulties I am facing.

That may also have been what the disciples were thinking in the Gospel we listen to this morning. St. Matthew relates how they were ordered by Christ to get into the boat and cross the Sea of Galilee. No sooner had they entered the boat when a terrible storm began to stir; they were being “tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against them” (Matthew 14:24).

Many of these disciples were fishermen. They would have understood how dangerous a storm on the Sea of Galilee could become. Perhaps they had known men of equal or greater experience who had died in storms on the Sea of Galilee. St. Matthew tells us that this battle for their lives raged up until the fourth watch of the night (between 3am-6am); they had been fighting it almost all night long, and the entire time Christ was up on the mountain, with God in prayer. They may very well have been thinking: Where is God in all of this? I cannot see God at work in this storm…I cannot find God in the midst of all the difficulties I am facing.

Maybe you have felt like that in your life. It is difficult for us to understand what seems so often to be the distance of God. Where is God in all of this? I cannot see God at work in my life… Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his second book on Jesus of Nazareth, writes about this mystery of the distance and closeness of Christ. Reflecting on this same incident of the disciples in the storm at sea, he likens that experience to the mystery of the Ascension of our Lord into heaven.

Remember when Christ rose from the dead, and appeared to His disciples. He had told them at that time He was now going to return to the Father. Naturally, they were distressed. How could they possibly live in this world without Christ, after all that had happened to them and all they had shared with our Lord? His presence among them had changed everything…and now He was going to leave them? Oddly, Christ had even said, “It is better for you that I go” (John 16:7). Better? Better to not have Jesus physically with them any longer? How is that possible?

It would be better because once Christ had ascended to the Father they would send the Holy Spirit who would dwell intimately with the Church and with each one of those disciples. His going away would be an even more intimate and personal experience of God than they could have possibly imagined!

Pope Benedict XVI says that this experience of the storm on the Sea of Galilee is an anticipation of this same kind of closeness, this same intimacy with God. He says that Christ on the mountain is not further away from those disciples who are struggling against the storm. No, He is closer than ever and “because he is with the Father, he sees them.” In a certain sense He sees them through the Father’s eyes, and because He sees them, says Pope Benedict, He comes to them.

It is not the case, then, that the burden falls upon us in the storms of life to see God at work, to find God in our lives and suddenly make sense of the sadness and difficulties that perplex us. No. God sees us. Christ sees us through the Father’s eyes and He comes to us!

Pope Benedict XVI eloquently encourages us:

In our own day, too, the boat of the Church travels against the headwind of history through the turbulent ocean of time. Often it looks as if it is bound to sink. But the Lord is there, and he comes at the right moment. “I go away, and I will come to you”—that is the essence of Christian trust, the reason for our joy.
—Pope Benedict XVI
Jesus of Nazareth: Part II, Pg. 285

Just one month ago I began my current assignment as Rector of the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence here in the Diocese of Providence. It is a tremendous responsibility which I both appreciate and am aware of daily. Upon beginning this ministry several people have approached me and said things like: “I am sure that God is calling priests to serve him in the diocese. What are you going to do to bring them into the seminary?” or “You are now responsible, in part, for the preparation and formation of future priests in the Church. What do you think of that?” Truth be told, in many ways it is overwhelming. Those questions are as perplexing for me as they would be for anyone.

But, nonetheless, I am also filled with trust, anticipation, even joy. I know that the one who called me—in the midst of so many storms and doubts and fears; that same God who called me and guided me so faithfully and fruitfully in seminary and in the priesthood—that same God is calling many men to serve Him faithfully in the priesthood now. He comes to us when we need Him most and I know that He is with the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence and with all of the men studying for the priesthood here even now. I know that He who called us is faithful and He will guide us through all the storms of life.

I would invite you to please join me in prayer for all of them and for those whom God is calling, even now, to the priesthood and religious life. May they be able to listen to that "still, small voice" that Elijah heard on the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:12), and may we all hear clearly the voice of Christ who came to the disciples in the midst of the storm and who always comes to us when we need Him most. May He lead us ever closer—through the priesthood, through the Eucharist, and through the preaching of the Word of God—to the shores of salvation.